As Luck Would Have It
From time to time you meet one of those genuine people who, after you get to know him, you declare to yourself that the world needs more folks like him. A practical approach to life, a straight forward way of communicating and a laid back nature packed into a person like that means a great conversation; especially if you’re lucky enough to interview said person for your blog. If that person also has a chili recipe that’s out of this world that you can get him to share, your lucky streak may just fly into orbit!
It’s a good thing I’m lucky! As a result, I got a chance to sit down with a fellow foodie who matches that description. We had a chat over pizza, our conversation meandering casually along paths of work, family and our mutual love for cooking.
Husband, father, friend, IT engineer, brother, boss, friend, mentor, neighbor, amazing home cook; these are a few of the hats Brian Summers wears. No matter which hat happens to be donned, however, one of the common threads connecting them all is a love for food, for cooking and for feeding people.
“I’ll never forget, my mom had this old, brown Pyrex dish from the 70s that she made banana pudding in.”
This love grows from the roots of memories that were planted in his mind at an early age. Summers recalled that his mother always took care of dinner and the feeling it gave him when she would call him in from playing to eat. “It was that feeling of coming home,” he noted. “You knew it was safe… your family was there. Everyone had what they needed. That’s what that meant.” With a nostalgic look in his eyes, he continuing his reminiscence, “Mom had this old, brown Pyrex dish from the 70s that she made homemade banana pudding in. Just seeing that in the oven, I knew everything was in good shape. We were good, ya know?”
Lighting the Fire
A spark for cooking was lit as a young boy when his grandmother took him to a friend’s house; a person who was certainly a pit master. Summers remembers, “It was the first time I’d ever seen a whole pig on a pit that wasn’t on TV. ” To the budding home culinarian’s delight, his grandfather pulled off a perfect piece of melt in your mouth, tender, juicy pork for him. “That image is stuck in my mind, picture perfect,” Summers declared with a wistful grin.
That fire was further stoked as a young man, working a fast food job in high school. Without realizing it, he was learning skills that he would take with him into his kitchen at home. A problem solver at heart, he enjoyed figuring out better ways of doing things in the restaurant; improvements in the kitchen, to recipes, and to process. “I got to where I liked the science of food. Why does this taste good with that. Is there a reason for prepping certain things ahead and waiting on others?” Alton Brown became an influence on Summers as he racked up stove time and gained experience in the kitchen. “I like to be knowledgeable about whatever I do. When I realized I loved cooking, it was no different. I wanted to learn everything I could about it.”
Do Unto Others
With a family of his own now, it’s important to Summers to continue the tradition of providing good food as a staple for social gatherings as well as every day home life. While he loves the science behind it and the actual work that goes into preparing food, his passion reaches beyond that. “It gets down to people having a good experience with whatever I make.” When a person is generous by nature, there is a joy they get from making others feel happy and content. “How you cook affects them and how they feel,” explains Summers,
“In the end, I can make people smile. I don’t know how you beat that.”
The sincerity in his words seem to have their own weight and ring with a truth that is fundamental to who he is; a guy who cares about people.
Let’s Dig Into Some Chili!
Seeing those smiles is affirmation; a nod to his culinary prowess. “It feels good when people are begging for my chili or whatever I make. It means a lot to me.” said Summers. And people do beg for his chili; this humble blogger included! I’ve tried it myself and I can sincerely say that it’s the best chili I’ve had. For that reason, I’ve pressed him for the recipe for years. While he’s hinted at ingredients and techniques, he selfishly guards his prescription for the perfect pot of chili-peppered provision. “My daughter is the only one who really knows how to make it.” Summers noted with a self-satisfied smirk and a hint of pride in his voice. I got the distinct impression that the pride was in his daughter far more than in his recipe. His ability to hand something like this down to his children means the world to Summers. “I’m not just giving my kids a recipe. Anybody can do that. I’m teaching them about what it means to feed your family and other people good food.”
Hoping to learn a bit more about how he does it, I continued talking about his chili. A dish which, I’ll note, has won a number of prizes at various venues. One example is a yearly chili cook off they have at Education Networks of American, where he works. He won so many years in a row that the organizers of the event asked him to stopped competing. Oh, they still want him to bring his chili to serve alongside the competitors; he just can’t officially enter the contest. It’s simply understood that his is going to be the best offering of the day; first prize winners still playing second fiddle.
“Fewer people wanted to compete every year because they assumed I would win, so they stopped bringing chili and there wasn’t enough for everyone to eat.” explained Summers. “The committee that puts on the cook off asked me not to enter any more, but everyone still wanted my chili, so they just pay for the ingredients now and I make a couple big pots of it to bring.” Most noteworthy is the fact that though he makes more than twice the amount of chili the numerous competitors each submit, he never has to worry about left overs.
To Market, to Market!
A product as good as Summer’s chili should be for sale. “I’ve thought about selling my chili. There could be a market for it. ” considered Summers, “What I know about canned chili right now is that it sucks so I’d love to have mine on the shelf.” His chili has receive numerous compliments, awards, and assurances that the recipe is unmatched, yet one of Summer’s biggest fears is that people en masse may not like it.
There is also a matter of resources. Starting a small business, getting funding, figuring out everything that is needed; these are all daunting for someone who has no experience with that sort of thing. (Someone really should come up with a blog with resource links that can help demystify some of those things!) Like many things in life, confidence is key. Second to that is a willingness to take a chance. Maybe one day, this chili guru will throw in all the beans and put his product on the shelf for everyone to enjoy!
“I really just started to make chili for me; the way I like it.” noted Summers, “I wanted chili that didn’t taste so much like tomato. Chili should taste like beef with a hint of tomato in the background and you should be able to stand a spoon up in it.” So he set about researching chili. After reading a number of recipes, he combined his favorite parts of a few of them and started experimenting.
A believer in slow cooking methods, Summers said, “You can’t put a pot of chili on at 5 o’clock and expect to have it for dinner at 6 the same day.” Slow cooking meat is the best way to make it tender. “I’ve been accused of using Fillet Mignon in my chili because the meat is so tender.” This, followed by a wry smile and an admission of the cut of beef he really uses. What? Did you think I was going to give away that part of his secret?! I had to work on him for years to get this one out of him. I’m afraid that information won’t come cheap, my friends.
Tips? Tricks? Secrets?
His next tip? “You have to cook with spices on the food while it’s cooking. Spicing it after it’s cooked is not always best. Cook the meat with cumin in it so the flavor gets down into the meat – like that.” When pressed for the spice mix he uses in his chili, the answer was vague and enigmatic, leading me to believe Summers must surely use fairy dust, unicorn hair or something like crack cocaine. His chili really is too good to be as simple as he tries to make people believe. “If I took you through my whole process, you’d be surprised. It’s stupid simple; just common sense steps if you know anything about cooking. It’s all about the care you put into the details,” Summers disclosed.
The Bad Bowl from Which We Learn
We all have to learn, and learning so often requires mistakes. Consequently, not every dish is going to be stellar. It’s the bad ones that teach us something. Sometimes the lesson is about cooking, while other times we perform an exercise in self-discovery. “Around the time I started cooking chili,” Summers recalls, “I also wanted something easy for dessert.” His place of employment was having a potluck meal and needed sweets. “I found the easiest recipe I could and doubled it. And I put it in this big ugly bowl.” Noting that it was something like a fake cherry mouse, Summers continued, “It was this weird shade of pink. It looked awful.”
After the meal concluded, all that was left of the dessert section of the buffet were a few crumbs, some empty pie dishes, and an untouched (ugly) bowl of Summers’ strangely pink, counterfeit confection. “The stuff tasted good even though nobody ate it. It just looked kind of funny. It’s embarrassing, you know, to make something like that and then nobody eats it,” Summers commented. “From then on, I didn’t make anything without researching the heck out of it. That bad experience helped with the rest of my cooking; helped with the chili too.”
Tools of the Trade
Every person who spends any time in the kitchen tends to have favorite tools and gadgetry. For Summers, that tool is his trusty kitchen sheers. “You can pop a hole in a can, trim chicken, streak, you name it,” Summers told me. “I can control stuff better. You don’t need a cutting board to use them; it’s like the Leatherman of the kitchen.” Knife skills not to be discounted, however, Summers explained that he would like to improve his game in that area; indicating a desire to take a culinary class one day for that purpose.
Parting Words of Wisdom
People who enjoy giving to others tend to be teachers. There’s something about imparting knowledge, advice and expertise that drives a giver. If you help another person, the results of your efforts can multiply exponentially. Realizing this, Summers concluded our interview with a bit of advice for anyone thinking about getting into cooking. “Start with what you enjoy.” He expounds, “If you hate bread and cookies, don’t be a baker. Are you a griller? Are you a concoction person? It’s like life; pick what you enjoy and it’ll work out.” He adds, “Then learn the basics of that one thing and go from there.”
Summers proves his philosophy with his chili. He got good at that one thing he enjoys doing in the kitchen, starting with the basics. While he’s become proficient at other dishes and cooking styles, he has developed some of the best chili I’ve had in my life. Others have made the same declaration and the blue ribbons attached to his chili pot stand as testament to the truth of our words.
A connection to family and friends, a chance to learn and challenge himself and the ability to make people happy – These are the reasons Brian Summers does what he does. A good pot of chili, a good baked potato, a good lemon icebox pie or a good anything is a happy side effect. I hope you are as challenged by this fellow as I am to get in the kitchen, learn some new things and enjoy some time around the table with good food and the fellowship of people you love.
Finally, I asked Mr. Summers if he had a couple recipes or techniques he would mind sharing. I plied him with both reason and sympathy to get him to tell me his chili recipe, but I came up empty-handed. He did, however, share his method for making the perfect baked potato and his favorite steak season blend.
The Perfect Baked Potato
2 – 4 Russet potatoes
2 T olive oil
4 T kosher salt or flaked sea salt (adjust to taste)
- Pre-heat oven to 425 F.
- Scrub, wash and dry potatoes.
- Pour salt onto a small plate and set aside.
- Rub olive oil completely over potato.
- Roll potato well in salt.
- Place directly on oven racks (no foil wrapping)
- Bake for about 1 hour.
- Cool slightly and enjoy!
Be sure to eat the potato skin!!!
1 T dried oregano
1 T parsley flakes
1 T cracked black pepper
1 T kosher salt
1 T garlic powder
1 T onion powder
- Mix these spices together in a bowl.
- Thoroughly rub the seasoning on your steaks.
- Coat the steaks in olive oil after seasoning.
- Rub the olive oil into the seasoning and steak.
- Grill your steak
- Eat steak after resting 5 to 10 minutes
* Note: Don’t forget to let your steaks come to room temp before grilling